The Six Goals of an Ideal Vocabulary Curriculum

  • academic vocabulary
  • 13 June, 2020

Teacher question:

Could you recommend a strong vocabulary curriculum that my school could adopt?

Shanahan responds:

Because I work with various companies, I never recommend particular programs.

However, while there are vocabulary programs, this is an area where teachers are often expected to go their own way. Given that, let me suggest the scope of an outstanding vocabulary curriculum. My focus here is on what needs to be taught, rather than on the instructional approaches needed to accomplish this.

Overall, an ideal vocabulary curriculum would encourage the teaching of six things.

First, the ideal vocabulary curriculum would aim to increase students’ knowledge of the meanings of specific words. Vocabulary knowledge is closely correlated with reading comprehension (Nation, 2009), and there are studies in which words have been taught thoroughly enough to raise reading comprehension (NICHD, 2000). Knowing the meanings of words matters.

Vocabulary can be learned both from explicit teaching and implicitly from any interaction with language, and reading can be an especially target-rich environment for that. A curriculum, of course, would mainly focus on the explicit part of the equation. It would specify the words thought to be valuable for kids’ learning – the one’s we’d monitor to see if progress was being made.

This part of a vocabulary curriculum would include collections of words. The words in these collections should be worth learning (that simply means they should appear in print frequently so that knowing them is advantageous), and they should be worth the instructional time (which means that students at this grade level wouldn’t know them already). There needs to be a scope and sequence of these words so that teachers at different grade levels won’t keep teaching and reteaching the same words over and over.

Given the length of a school year, the numbers of words students are likely to retain, and the demands of review, I’d aim to teach about 150 words per year (students will learn more than that due to implicit learning).

Second, an ideal vocabulary curriculum would include a list of key morphemes to be taught; prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms. Research supports the value of such teaching (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010). But, unfortunately, it doesn’t provide clarity with regard to how many such elements to teach, so I can’t estimate as I did with words.

As usual, it makes the greatest sense to teach those morphological elements that are most frequent and there need to be grade level agreements so everybody isn’t teaching pre- and -able while no one familiarizes the kids with -re and -ment.

Third, an important part of vocabulary learning is developing an ability to use context to determine meanings of unknown words. Good readers can both figure the meanings of words they’ve never encountered previously, and they can decide which of a word’s meanings is the relevant one in a given context (you don’t want kids thinking that the Gettysburg Address refers to where Lincoln stayed when he visited Pennsylvania).

Most reading programs don’t do enough with this, so we should not be surprised that students do such poor job of it. Research (Schatz & Baldwin, 1986) found that odds of students getting words right from context was pretty random. Middle schoolers were as likely to light on an opposite meaning as they were a correct definition! A word like “ebony” was interpreted as meaning white as often as black.

Basically, we spend too much time preteaching words before reading, but not enough on close questioning to determine whether they’ve interpreted a word correctly. We certainly do not invest enough in showing students how to use context when reading. That would be an important part of an ideal vocabulary curriculum, and it would be taught during the various forms of guided or directed reading activities.

Fourth, whatever happened to the dictionary? One key element in learning to deal with vocabulary is the learning how to find out the meanings of a word. These days that’s a bit more complicated than when I was in school, given the availability of multiple online dictionaries, pop-up dictionaries, and the like. Students should be taught to use these resources throughout the elementary grades as appropriate. There are also specialized dictionaries, like science dictionaries or history dictionaries; those should be the province of high schools.

Dictionary instruction appears to be a lost art. Students need to know how dictionaries work, how to identify the appropriate definition from a dictionary entry, what to do when they don’t understand a definition, and so on.

Fifth, students need to develop a sense of diction, both as readers (or listeners) and as writers (or speakers). Words are complex and nuanced. They not only carry the declarative meanings that appear in dictionaries, but they convey attitudes and feelings. It matters whether you “question” your students or if you “interrogate” them.

As with the teaching of use of context, this part of the instruction is likely to make the greatest sense if it is linked to comprehension or communication. Students need to improve in their ability to discern author’s perspective or shades of meaning based on the author’s choice of words and for older students it is critical that they come to recognize how word choice influences bias. Such learning may not entail the development of new vocabulary, but the ability to implications of vocabulary already known.

Sixth, students need to develop a word conscience (or they need to learn the metalinguistic aspects of vocabulary (Nagy, 2007)). Here, I can’t tell you much from research. However, as someone who regularly reads text in a language that I cannot speak and who reads in many fields of study that I’m not especially well versed in (e.g., economics, physics, chemistry, biology, communications, political science), I have become quite aware of the importance of vocabulary conscience.

Good readers – in this case, readers who handle vocabulary well – need to be aware of when they do not know the meaning of a word. If you aren’t conscious that you don’t actually know a word’s meaning, then you are going to have comprehension problems (for instance, do you really know what “accost” or “voluptuous” mean?). If you are unaware of your ignorance, then you won’t be skeptical of your use of context, you won’t know when to turn to the dictionary, or that morphological analysis might be a good idea.

Word conscience also includes recognizing when it’s okay not to worry about a word meaning. Often, I can gain understand what I need from a text, without knowing the meaning of every word. Recognizing when I can safely (and ignorantly) proceed, and when I’d better do a bit more work, is an important distinction that good readers make.

This aspect of vocabulary knowledge also governs what I do when I don’t know all the words and have no tools to solve them. Sometimes readers just need to power through, making sense of as much of a text as possible, accepting that they aren’t getting it all since they don’t know all the words. Sometimes 50% understanding just has to be better than 0%. Too many readers encounter a couple of unknown words and call it day. Vocabulary conscience includes the development of reading stamina in low vocabulary knowledge situations 

Of course, this sounds like six discrete areas of learning, but there is nothing discrete about them. Those words that are taught explicitly could also be the source for morphological study.  Words the students struggled to figure out from context could be added to the memorization list and any words that students know could become the focus of lessons on diction. Any of these can be confronted in reading, writing, or oral language instruction, too, and simply encouraging an interest in words belongs here, too.  

What would be the ideal vocabulary curriculum? One that increases the numbers of valuable words that students know, that increases their ability to define words from morphology and context, that fosters an awareness of meaning and diction, that enhances the ability to use appropriate reference tools, and that encourages metalinguistic awareness and sensitivity when dealing with word meanings.    


See what others have to say about this topic.

Karin Ataoglu Jun 13, 2020 04:06 PM

Tt's the first time I came accross the term: "word conscience". It's really enlightening. Can you propose any sources to read about it? Thank you.

Harriett Jun 14, 2020 05:49 PM

I want to provide anecdotal evidence in support of Jeff's comments. I used an online matrix-maker this past year to teach morphology to my third graders. The students enjoyed it, and it really does facilitate the "spelling and meaning connections". So the matrix has been a wonderful addition to my literacy block. Thanks, Jeff.

Ellen Kappus, EdD Jun 13, 2020 07:05 PM

Word consciousness is fostered through explicit word instruction routines. When learning compound words, create a wall board for students to record compound words they hear throughout the day. Have word walls hung in hallways that teach character traits. When tackling a new subject, provide a word wall of subject related terms. As a school, elevate your vocabulary to use Tier 2 words such as complete (finish) select (grab), meet (come together). The more explicit vocabulary instructional routines incorporated into the grade levels, the more likely every student will develop a consciousness of words and learn how much they like them.

Sheryl Freeman Jun 13, 2020 07:44 PM

Great! Thanks for all the insight on what good vocabulary instruction looks like. Now, for busy educators who don't have the time or opportunity to evaluate hundreds of curricula, what are we supposed to do with that response?

Samantha Jun 13, 2020 09:31 PM

The development of a vocabulary chart is a useful strategy that is transferrable to any situation or class. OLSEL (Oral Language Supporting Early Literacy) is what Hugh McCusker (spelling ?) taught us and is invaluable. In planning for the use of any text you select words that can be explored richly - define the meaning, both in the context of this text and others, list the synonyms and antonyms, discuss the origin or base word so that you can then explore other morphological derivations of the word, apply prefixes and suffixes. The theory is that through learning about one word you expose, through oral language, at least 10 more. The best words to use for this are the Tier 2 words (Tier 1 being basic ordinary family words of speech cat, dog, the, and .....) The best way to identify the best words to use are the ones in grade level texts that you are your students can think of that enable you to fill the chart ( as described above and not necessarily limited to only those possibilities).
Tier 3 words are those Technical Or subject specific words that can be explored and collected in word walls but are not for the vocabulary chart.
The theory is that whilst you explicitly teach at least 100- 150 words per year your studentS learn about, are exposed to over 1000-2000 more and can potentially work out even more by using this process themselves.
The vocabulary chart is one of a few practices that include a focus on explicit teaching of phonological and phonemic skills, fluency and questioning and structure of text.
The research showed OLSEL practices made a significant difference to reading (and anecdotally writing as an added bonus) in both decoding and comprehension results.

Mark Pennington Jun 14, 2020 01:03 AM

The best part of the Common Core Standards is L. 4,5,6 and it covers all six of your essentials. In addition the Standards add figurative language. What's your take on using the University of Wellington at Victoria's research-based tier two word list? Consists of frequency words in the academic corpus beyond the 3000 most common.

Jeff Bowers Jun 14, 2020 09:29 AM

Hi Tim, I agree that morphological instruction can play an important role in vocabulary instruction. I also think it is worth considering a specific tool for vocabulary instruction that has received little attention – the morphological matrix. It is away to depict the spelling and meaning connections between all words in morphological family. Importantly, it provides an obvious way to link familiar and unfamiliar words in the family, and there are good reasons to think this is a good way to learn these new words. Here is a link to a paper that provides some preliminary evidence that the morphological matrix is a better way to learn than the standard alternative method of morphological instruction.

Nancy Jun 14, 2020 12:36 PM

These six points are spot on. But I would add one more: word choice as an indicator of author's tone. That seems really important right now where readers can "understand" a word, but miss its real meaning in a given situation. I think this goes beyond what you noted about using context clues.

Jude Cantor Jun 14, 2020 02:02 PM

Read Isabelle Beck’s “Bringing Words to Life”.

Harriett Jun 14, 2020 05:56 PM

I would like to add anecdotal support for Jeff's recommendation to utilize a morphological matrix. I used this online matrix-maker in my third grade class last year. The students loved it, and it really does facilitate the learning of "spelling and meaning connections". I look forward to reading the paper cited. Thanks, Jeff.

Amber Miller Ed.D. Jun 16, 2020 03:47 AM

Food for thought. How might you differentiate for second language learners?

Timothy E Shanahan Jun 17, 2020 01:29 PM


I know of no sources on that. I think I'm the first one to write about it.


Timothy Shanahan Jun 17, 2020 01:31 PM


There is a lot more to building vocabulary consciousness than you seem to think. Explicit vocabulary instruction does not accomplish that (and proponents of that don't claim that it does). This is more about developing intellectual integrity, self awareness and a strategic sense; recognizing when you don't know a word, when it matters, when it power through, how to be skeptical about your own contextual guesses.


Timothy Shanahan Jun 17, 2020 01:33 PM


You are absolutely right. That is point #5 in my list.


Timothy Shanahan Jun 17, 2020 01:35 PM


Research shows that vocabulary is even more important to second language learners than to first language learners. I wouldn't change anything in this list -- second language learners need to learn all of these... and the methods of teaching these things is not much different either. However, the amount of time that I would devote to these would rise with L2s.


mary kussmann Jun 25, 2020 04:08 PM

I really believe that less is more with explicit vocabulary instruction. Often times we overload kids with long meaningless lists of words. If I am giving my kids 10-15 words per week as well as my other content counter parts, it's just too much. The intention is there but not the retention we would like. I give my students 3-4 academic vocabulary words to learn per week. We spend time with them every single day and really unpack how they are used and how they will help students going forward. I have the kids discuss the words and use them in various ways in their vocabulary notebooks. Giving them a solid purpose for learning the words helps kids with motivation. I have a lot of success with this approach. I find that when I use words that we have worked with, such as impact and factor, in a writing prompt, they know exactly how to answer.

Faith Wise Jul 03, 2020 02:22 AM

Any specific thoughts regarding vocabulary instruction for K-2 students?

Kammera Rice Jun 26, 2022 07:41 PM

The word that you are looking for is Connotation and Denotation. The implied meaning or nuamces of choosing certain words over another. for instance So we don't say FAT section, we say the husky section. similar meanings but one sounds better. Are you Cheap? or are you thrifty? connotations versus denotations

Kammera Rice Jun 26, 2022 11:51 PM

I too feel using context clues is a weak way to figure out word meaning. Young children who are inexperienced readers and /or don't have a wider background knowledge just do the Guessing game to figure out a word. In my experience, teaching context clues should be replaced with explicit vocabulary instruction. You get better results. Why is this still a thing?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 27, 2022 06:44 AM

There are benefits to using context to figuring out the meaning of a word -- however, as the blog indicates there are problems with it too (for instance, I was just reading something in French that context and morphology told me must be "currently" and that the dictionary made clear was "fluently" -- quite a difference. The problem is that no one knows the meaning of all words and dictionaries or helpful colleagues are not always available. Under those circumstances, context can be quite helpful.


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The Six Goals of an Ideal Vocabulary Curriculum


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